After an unspectacular start to his fifth full season in charge at Derby County, Nigel Clough returned to the City Ground, to face Billy Davies – no love lost there – the hostility of a crowd of Nottinghamshire people who used to revere him and the Sky television cameras, trained on him with basilisk impassivity, waiting for something to happen.
There was nothing between the two teams and the tension mounted until finally, something did happen. Forest’s Andy Reid fizzed in a dangerous corner, Craig Forsyth failed to mark Jack Hobbs and the centre back powered an unstoppable header past Lee Grant. 0-1.
Fast-forward four incredible months and Brighton & Hove Albion are the visitors to the newly-christened iPro Stadium. The Seagulls swing in a corner, Forsyth loses Matthew Upson and the centre back powers in a header, which looks for all the world a goal until Grant’s lightning reflexes come to the rescue. 0-0 and eventually 1-0 – Steve McClaren’s 11th win in his first 16 league matches.
It was sad to learn this week, via an interview with the Sheffield Telegraph‘s Alan Biggs, that Clough still feels deeply hurt by his dismissal from Derby – but unsurprising. We know the man’s intensity of character and his fierce belief in the value of loyalty. And of course, who else has ever managed a club with a statue of his father standing outside the ground?
That Nigel did all he could under difficult financial constraints is unquestioned. That the club is in an infinitely better place than it was when he inherited it from the incompetent Paul Jewell, nobody could deny. And signs were there even in the first few games of this season that the squad had improved again, as an impressive win at Brighton was followed up by casually superior swattings of Yeovil Town and Millwall.
Sadly, these successes in the south were only seen live by the travelling hardcore, while the Pride Park faithful’s early season optimism was crushed by three defeats in the first four home matches. That the three losses came against some of the strongest teams in the division cut no ice with disillusioned fans who were simply tired of what they saw as stagnation. I don’t think that anybody believed we were ever going to be relegated under Clough, but it was becoming hard to believe that we would ever be promoted either. Worse, arguably, than open anger in the stands is the apathy revealed by empty seats.
Derby had been atypically patient with Clough, allowing him the time to bring about the thorough transformation that the club so desperately needed. As a result, the squad taken on by McClaren was younger, more talented, notably more athletic and resolute than the grim assortment of misfits, has-beens and costly failures he took on – with a readily identifiable style of play, favouring patient, short passing through midfield, but also dangerous on the counter, with galloping full backs prepared to supplement the attack.
It is understandable, therefore, when Clough looks at the form the Rams have enjoyed ever since he left and says:
“We must have brought some pretty bad players in… to get these results! It would be nice one time to inherit a fit, organised, talented squad of players of good character… which some people have been fortunate enough to inherit.”
There’s something quite eerie about the idea of another Clough, exiled to Yorkshire, nursing his grievances over the way Derby treated him. Is this 2014, or 1974?
Of course, the vast majority of the players are still Clough signings, but it is undeniable that McClaren has, so far at least, coaxed a little extra out of them, as well as identifying three new players to greatly improved the squad. The defence, under McClaren, has tightened up. 13 goals were shipped in Clough’s nine Championship matches of 2013/4, compared to 18 in McClaren’s first 17 league games – eight of which came in the four games for which Richard Keogh was absent. Andre Wisdom is at least partly responsible for this improvement and is a startling upgrade on Adam Smith and Kieron Freeman, neither of whom looked capable of becoming the long-term replacement for John Brayford at right back.
Tactically, there are clear differences too. Clough would never have gone balls-out attack against Brighton at home, with the clock ticking down and the score 0-0. McClaren sensed the visitors’ happiness to nurdle their way to a dismal draw and sent on attackers to disrupt them – so committed was the Mac to the attack that he even brought on Conor Sammon when Wisdom had to come off injured, asking Jeff Hendrick fill in as a makeshift right back, rather than doing the orthodox thing.
Playing with four forwards could easily have gone wrong. But how many times did Clough’s attempts to shut up shop and hang onto a result lead to the bitter disappointment of a late sickener? We started the season that way, conceding a last-minute equaliser against Blackburn – and perhaps that was the moment when many people, rightly or wrongly, lost faith in him.
The reputation of the new coaching team has also become a helpful factor for us when it comes to recruitment. Take our latest signing, the young Dutch goalkeeper Kelle Roos. If his agent is to be believed (so you must take it with a pinch of salt), there was plenty of interest in him from the top two divisions, but the chance to work with a coach as highly respected as Eric Steele was surely a factor in where Roos saw his future – and he would have been aware of McClaren’s successes at FC Twente. Could the same have been said about Nigel Clough and Martin Taylor?
In a recent interview with the BBC, Patrick Bamford revealed how the McClaren factor paved the way for his move to Derby. “Chelsea were big fans and knew how Steve worked”, Bamford said. “Michael Emenalo [Chelsea’s technical director] said he was a great coach and I would develop and come on leaps and bounds.”
Roberto Mancini recently made statements comparable to Clough’s about Manchester City’s current success, telling the BBC: “I’m happy that City is one of the best teams in England because I built this team. The players that score the goals are players that I bought – Sergio Agüero, Edin Džeko, Yaya Touré, David Silva and Samir Nasri.”
Mancini qualified his bid to take most of the credit for Manuel Pellegrini’s work with the admission that: “After four or five years, maybe the manager needs to change team. I did my job…”
Hopefully, having gone on to enjoy success elsewhere, Clough will eventually be able to look back on his time at Derby with the same sort of detachment. He can feel satisfied with a job well done and as the club builds on the solid foundations he put into place, should try to take solace in the fact that his contribution will not be forgotten.
Besides, if I was a Sheffield United fan, I would not like to think that my club’s manager spent his time wishing he had been allowed to continue in a different job, rather than being focused upon the task in hand.